For more detailed coverage of the controversy over sex abuse cases and Pope Benedict, see MercatorNet’s new focus blog, Just B16.
Why is there talk again of paedophile priests, based on a case
in Germany, which drags in people who are close to the Pope and now
even the Pope himself? Does sociology have something to say about this
or should we leave it completely to the journalists? I believe
sociology has much to say, and it must not remain silent because of a
fear of displeasing some.
The current discourse on paedophile priests – considered from a sociological perspective – represents a typical example of “moral panic“.
The concept was coined in the 1970s to explain how certain problems
become the subject of “social hyperconstruction”. More precisely, moral
panics are defined as socially constructed problems that are
characterised by a systematic amplification of the true facts in the
media or in political discourse.
Two other characteristics
have been cited as typical of moral panics. First, problems that have
existed for decades are reconstructed in the media and political
accounts as new or as the subject of a recent dramatic increase.
Second, their incidence is exaggerated by statistics plucked from the
air which, while not confirmed by academic studies, are repeated by the
media and inspire persistent media campaigns. Historian and sociologist
Philip Jenkins, of Pennsylvania State University, has emphasised the role of “moral entrepreneurs”
in the creation and management of panics whose agenda is not always
revealed. Moral panics do not bring any good. They distort the
perception of the problems and compromise the efficacy of the measures
which should resolve them. After a harmful analysis inevitably there
comes a harmful intervention.
Let there be no
misunderstanding: at the origin of moral panics are objective and real
dangers. They do not invent a problem; they exaggerate its statistical
dimensions. In a series of excellent studies, Jenkins demonstrated
how the issue of paedophile priests is perhaps the most typical moral
panic. Two characteristic elements exist: a fact which serves as a
starting point, and an exaggeration of this fact by moral entrepreneurs.
of all, the fact which serves as a starting point. Paedophile priests
exist. Certain cases are both unsettling and disgusting; they have
resulted in convictions and the accused priests never even protested
that they were innocent. These cases – in the United States, Ireland
and Australia – explain the severe words of the Pope and his request
for forgiveness from the victims. Even if there were only two cases –
and unfortunately there are more than two – these would still be two
But asking for forgiveness –noble and appropriate as
it is – is not enough. We have to ensure that this will not happen
again. Thus, it is relevant whether to inquire whether there are 2,
200, or 20,000 cases. And it is relevant whether the number of cases is
higher or lower among Catholic priests and consecrated persons compared
to other categories of persons. Sociologists are often accused of
working on cold numbers, forgetting that behind each number is a human
individual. But numbers, while not sufficient of themselves, are
necessary. They are essential for adequate analysis.
understand how from a tragically real fact one passes to a moral panic
we must ask how many priests are paedophiles. The largest body of
information has been collected in the United States, where in 2004 the
US Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned an independent study by
the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New
York. This is not a Catholic university and is unanimously recognised
as the most authoritative academic institution of criminology in the
This study concluded that from 1950 to 2002
4,392 American priests (of over 109,000) were accused of having sexual
relations with minors. Of these, just over 100 were convicted in the
courts. The low number of convictions is due to various factors. In
some cases the true or alleged victims reported priests who were
already dead, or for whom a statute of limitation barred the action. In
others, the accusation and even the canonical sentence did not involve
any violation of the law: such is the case, for example, in various
American states where a priest has sexual relations with a consenting
person over the age of 16.
But there have also been many
sensational cases of priests who have been falsely accused. Indeed,
these cases multiplied in the 1990s, when some legal firms recognised
they could reap million dollar returns even on the basis of mere
suspicion. Appeals for zero tolerance are justifiable, but there should
also be zero tolerance for defaming innocent priests. Nor do the
numbers change significantly from 2002 to 2010. The John Jay College
study already noted a “significant decline” in cases in the 2000s. New
investigations have been rare, and sentences extremely rare, as a
result of more rigorous controls introduced by American bishops as well
as the Holy See.
So, does the John Jay College study tells us
then, as one often reads, that 4 percent of American priests are
paedophiles? Not at all. According to the research, 78.2 percent of the
accusations involved minors who had advanced beyond puberty. Having
sexual relations with a 17-year-old is certainly not a beautiful thing,
and much less so for a priest, but it is not paedophilia. Therefore,
only 958 American priests were accused of true paedophilia over 52
years, 18 per year. There were only 54 convictions, a little less than
one per year.
The number of convictions of priests and
consecrated persons in other countries is similar to that of the United
States, even if no other country has available a study as comprehensive
as that of the John Jay College. Often government reports in Ireland
are cited which describe as “endemic” the level of abuses in boarding
schools and in (male) orphanages managed by certain dioceses and
religious orders. There is no doubt that there have been some very
serious cases of sexual abuse involving minors in this country. A
systematic perusal of these reports indicates, however, that many
accusations involve the use of excessive or violent means of
disciplining. The so-called Ryan Report of 2009
used very harsh language in relation to the Catholic Church. It studied
25,000 pupils in boarding schools, reformatories and orphanages in the
period and found 253 accusations of sexual abuse of boys and 128 of
girls. Not all of them were against priests or consecrated persons.
These were of different natures and levels of seriousness, but they
rarely involved prepubescent children. Convictions were even rarer.
controversies in recent weeks involving Germany and Austria demonstrate
a typical characteristic of moral panics: “new” facts going back many
years, in some cases over 30 years, in part already known. Events of
the 1980s — especially from the Pope’s own region of Bavaria — appear
on the front pages of newspapers if they had occurred yesterday. Wild
controversies spring up, in a concerted attack which announces
sensational new “discoveries” every day. This is how moral panics are
promoted by moral entrepreneurs in an organised and systematic manner.
fact that headlines say “it involves the Pope” is in its own way a
textbook case. These refer to an episode of abuse in the Archdiocese of
Munich in Bavaria and Freising, where the Pope was the Archbishop,
dating back to 1980. The case emerged in 1985 and was settled by a
German court in 1986, which decided among other things that the
decision to accept the priest in question into the Archdiocese had not
been taken by Cardinal Ratzinger. He did not even know about it, which
is not at all strange in a large diocese with a complex bureaucracy.
Why a German daily newspaper would decide to exhume this case and
plaster it over the front page 24 years after the conviction should be
the real question.
Now we come to an unpleasant question –
because the simple raising of it appears defensive, and does not
console victims – but it is an important one. Is being a Catholic
priest a condition which involves a risk of becoming a paedophile and
sexually abusing minors which is higher than the rest of the
population? As we have seen the two things are not the same since
abusing a 16-year-old is not paedophilia. Answering this question is
fundamental to discovering the cause of the phenomenon and thus
According to studies by Jenkins, if one
compares the Catholic Church in the United States to the major
Protestant denominations, one discovers that the presence of
paedophiles – depending on the denominations – is from two to ten times
higher for the major Protestant denominations compared to Catholic
priests. The question is important because it demonstrates that the
problem is not celibacy. Most of the Protestant pastors are married.
the same period in which about 100 American priests were convicted for
sexually abusing minors, the number of gym teachers and coaches of
junior sporting teams – also mainly married – who were convicted of the
same crimes in the US reached about 6,000. The examples could continue,
not only in the US. And above all, according to regular US government
reports, two-thirds of sexual abuse against minors does not come from
strangers or educators – including priests and Protestant pastors – but
from family members: stepfathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and,
unfortunately, even parents. Similar facts exist for numerous other
While it may hardly be politically correct to say
so, there is a fact that is much more important: over 80 percent of
paedophiles are homosexuals, that is, males who abuse other males. And
– again citing Jenkins – over 90 percent of Catholic priests convicted
for sexually abusing minors have been homosexual. If a problem has
sprung up in the Catholic Church, it is not due to celibacy but to a
certain tolerance of homosexuality in seminaries, particularly in the
1970s, when most of the priests later convicted for the abuses were
ordained. This is a problem that Benedict XVI is rigorously correcting.
More generally, a return to moral principles, to ascetical discipline,
to meditating on the true greatness of the priesthood are the antidotes
to the real tragedy of paedophilia. The Year of the Priest must also
Compared to 2006, when the BBC broadcast a
trash-documentary featuring the Irish parliamentarian and homosexual
activist Colm O’Gorman, and to 2007, when the Italian media personality
Santoro broadcast an Italian version on his program Annozero, there is
little new — except for increased severity and vigilance in the
Church. The painful cases of recent weeks have not been invented, but
they go back 20 or even 30 years.
However, perhaps, there is something new.
are old and very often well-known cases being exhumed in 2010 on a
daily basis, always attacking the Pope? This is paradoxical if one
considers the great severity of then Cardinal Ratzinger and of Benedict
XVI on this very theme. The moral entrepreneurs who organise the panic
have an agenda which is increasingly clear and which is not essentially
the protection of children. This is a time when political, juridical
and even electoral decisions in Europe and elsewhere are being made
about the abortion pill RU-486, euthanasia, the recognition of same sex
unions. Only the voice of the Pope and the Church is being raised to
defend life and the family. The reading of certain articles in the
media shows that very powerful lobby groups are seeking to silence this
voice with the worst possible defamation — and unfortunately an easy
one to make — that of favouring or tolerating paedophilia.
more or less Masonic lobby groups show the sinister power of
technocracy which was raised by Benedict XVI himself in his encyclical Caritas in veritate and in the denunciation of John Paul II, in his Message for the World Day of Peace of 1985.
They warned of “hidden aims” – alongside others which are “openly
promoted” which are “directed at subjecting all populations to regimes
in which God does not count”.
This is truly a dark hour. It takes one back to the prediction of a great Italian Catholic thinker of the 19th century, Emiliano Avogadro della Motta
(1798-1865). He predicted that after the devastation caused by secular
ideologies an authentic “demon worship” would spring up which would
attack the family and the true concept of marriage. Reestablishing the
sociological truth about moral panics over priests and paedophilia will
not of itself resolve the problems and will not stop the lobby groups.
But it is a small and proper tribute to the greatness of this Pope and
to a Church which is wounded and defamed because they will not be
silent on the issues of life and the family.
Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religion. He is the founder and
managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR).
This article from the CESNUR website has been reprinted and translated with permission.